United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
WILLIAM A. HOWARD, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
PHIL GILBERT, DISTRICT JUDGE
accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), plaintiff William A.
Howard seeks judicial review of the final agency decision
denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 423.
applied for DIB and SSI on July 17, 2013, alleging a
disability onset date of June 15, 2013. (Tr. 181-94.) His
claims were denied initially, and again upon reconsideration.
(Tr. 63-80, 83-90.) Plaintiff requested an evidentiary
hearing, which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Laurie Wardell
conducted on December 4, 2015. (Tr. 40-62.) The ALJ issued an
unfavorable determination thereafter. (Tr. 22-39.) The
Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review,
rendering the ALJ's decision the final agency decision.
(Tr. 1-4.) Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies
and filed a timely Complaint in this Court. (Doc. 1). In the
complaint, Plaintiff argues (1) the ALJ erroneously assessed
the opinions of his treating physician; (2) the ALJ erred in
evaluating the opinions of the state agency consultants; and
(3) the ALJ improperly evaluated plaintiff's subjective
qualify for benefits, a claimant must be
“disabled” pursuant to the Social Security Act.
The Act defines a “disability” as the
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). The physical or mental impairment must result
from a medically demonstrable abnormality. 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(3). Moreover, the impairment must prevent the
plaintiff from engaging in significant physical or mental
work activity done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §
Security regulations require an ALJ to ask five questions
when determining whether a claimant is disabled. The first
three questions are simple: (1) whether the claimant is
presently unemployed; (2) whether the claimant has a severe
physical or mental impairment; and (3) whether that
impairment meets or is equivalent to one of the listed
impairments that the regulations acknowledge to be
conclusively disabling. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4);
Weatherbee v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 565, 569 (7th Cir.
2011). If the answers to these questions are “yes,
” then the ALJ should find that the claimant is
times, an ALJ may find that the claimant is unemployed and
has a serious impairment, but the impairment is neither
listed in nor equivalent to the impairments in the
regulations- failing at step three. If this happens, then the
ALJ must ask a fourth question: (4) whether the claimant is
able to perform his or her previous work. Id. If the
claimant is not able to, then the burden shifts to the
Commissioner to answer a fifth and final question: (5)
whether the claimant is capable of performing any
work within the economy, in light of the claimant's age,
education, and work experience. If the claimant cannot, then
the ALJ should find the claimant to be disabled.
Id.; see also Simila v. Astrue, 573 F.3d
503, 512-13 (7th Cir. 2009); Zurawski v. Halter, 245
F.3d 881, 886 (7th Cir. 2001).
claimant may appeal the final decision of the Social Security
Administration to this Court, but the scope of review here is
limited: while the Court must ensure that the ALJ did not
make any errors of law, the ALJ's findings of fact are
conclusive as long as they are supported by
“substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable person
would find sufficient to support a decision.
Weatherbee, 649 F.3d at 568 (citing Jens v.
Barnhart, 347 F.3d 209, 212 (7th Cir. 2003)). The Court
takes into account the entire administrative record when
reviewing for substantial evidence, but it does not reweigh
evidence, resolve conflicts, decide questions of credibility,
or substitute its own judgment for that of the ALJ.
Brewer v. Chater, 103 F.3d 1384, 1390 (7th Cir.
1997); Moore v. Colvin, 743 F.3d 1118, 1121 (7th
Cir. 2014). But even though this judicial review is limited,
the Court should not and does not act as a rubber stamp for
the Commissioner. Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920,
921 (7th Cir. 2010).
Wardell determined that plaintiff met the insured status
requirements through December 31, 2018 and had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date.
Furthermore, the ALJ opined that plaintiff had a severe
impairment of history of a fracture of the left knee with
arthrofibrosis and osteonecrosis. She also opined plaintiff
had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light
work-except he could not kneel, crawl, or climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds. He could occasionally climb ramps and
stairs, stoop, balance, and crouch. Plaintiff had to avoid
all exposure to slippery or uneven surfaces, vibrations,
hazards, and operating foot controls with the left lower
extremity. The ALJ noted plaintiff was born on November 28,
1961 and was 51 years old on the alleged onset date, which
constitutes an individual closely approaching advanced age.
She opined transferability of job skills was not material to
the determination and although plaintiff could not perform
any past relevant work, he was not disabled because other
jobs existed that he could perform. (Tr. 27-33.)
Court has reviewed and considered the entire evidentiary
record in formulating this Memorandum and Order. The
following summary of the record is directed to
agency forms, plaintiff alleged that a broken left knee, high
blood pressure, osteoporosis, and heart issues limited his
ability to work. Plaintiff had an eighth-grade education and
worked as a roofer for the previous fifteen years. Plaintiff
could not carry anything or prepare his own meals, other than
frozen pizza and sandwiches. His wife put his socks and shoes
on for him and assisted him with bathing. Plaintiff had
difficulty sitting, standing, walking, and driving for long
periods. He also had trouble climbing ladders and stairs. He
experienced constant pain in his left knee. Throughout the
day, plaintiff ate and watched television. (Tr. 209-10,
represented by counsel, appeared at an evidentiary hearing on
December 4, 2015. He testified he lived with his wife and
twenty-seven year-old son. His home had five steps he
navigated to get in and out.
could drive for about thirty minutes to an hour. He could not
lift any weight without knee pain. His left knee popped,
swelled, and was painful when he walked. Plaintiff began
using a cane after knee surgery in 2013, but then stopped
using it until about a year before the hearing.
Plaintiff's doctor recommended a knee replacement in the
future. Plaintiff received injections in the past, which did
not help much. His doctor instructed him not to stand for
“prolonged” periods; plaintiff could stand for
about fifteen minutes without pain. He could sit for about
thirty minutes before his knee began hurting. (Tr. 40-62.)
was unable to help around the house and his only hobby was
watching television. He had to prop his leg up for
thirty-minute periods throughout the day, for a total of a
couple hours. (Id.)
vocational expert (VE) also testified at the hearing. The VE
first considered a hypothetical individual with
plaintiff's age, education, and the ability to perform
light work, except that he could not kneel or crawl; could
occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but not ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds; could occasionally balance, but not on wet or
uneven surfaces; and could not operate foot controls with the
left extremity or work around hazards. The VE opined jobs
existed that accommodated for the hypothetical
individual's limitations. (Id.)
then considered the same hypothetical as above, with an
additional limitation that the person had to sit for five
minutes after standing for an hour, while remaining on task.
The VE opined there were no available jobs that accommodated
for the set of limitations. Furthermore, there were no
transferable skills to sedentary positions. (Id.)